The first nights sleeping at the Oldemeyer Center were restless for Seaside Fire Capt. Jason Black. He and his crew had finished bringing over everything needed to make what is typically a bustling community center into a makeshift firehouse, but when it came time to go to sleep, it felt too quiet. Instead of waking to an alarm system with loudspeakers when calls come in – the system at the main station up the street – Black and his roommates/crew members, Chris Marsiguerra and Lee Whitney, are now awoken by small, portable radios.
The Oldemeyer Center is now closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Seaside Fire Department needed more space for social distancing, so the unoccupied city building was converted into a makeshift fire station in the early weeks of the county’s shelter-in-place order, accommodating firefighters on 48-hour shifts.
Now instead of hosting bingo games, senior gatherings and informational meetings, the place is occupied by a three-person fire crew most hours of the day. A community room filled with books, recliners and a TV serves as a briefing area for the firefighters. There are signs its function has changed: a whiteboard with notes scribbled across it, a computer screen that displays call information, portable radios on a table and maps taped to the wall. To make it feel more like home to the firefighters staying there, a big Seaside Fire Department sign was brought over from the main station and placed on the wall above the briefing table, where they meet via Zoom each morning with the division chief and the rest of the firefighters at the main station on Broadway Avenue.
It’s not the perfect place for a makeshift fire station – with no showers or real sleeping quarters – but adaptations have been made so that it works.
“It’s kind of like we are living in an RV for a little bit, but it’s a pretty nice RV,” Black says. “At the other station we have a huge map board, and all the stuff that makes the job a little easier.”
The sleeping quarters are three beds separated by cardboard, a folding table for each of the three men to put their belongings on, and a plastic chair. Each day at 7am, Black, Marsiguerra and Whitney start their day by grabbing their toiletries, loading into the fire engine and driving to Pattullo Swim Center next door to shower and shave. When they return to Oldemeyer, they make breakfast together and get on their morning briefing Zoom call to plan out their day.
Since April 7, crews have been split into groups of three and four, and half are assigned to stay at the main station while the others are at Oldemeyer. If any of the firefighters shows symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19, everyone who works with them would quarantine for 14 days, but other groups could keep working.
While it’s isolating, Black says the pandemic has brought fire departments throughout Monterey County together, as they communicate what new safety measures they have put in place.
“There hasn’t ever really been collaboration between departments until this pandemic,” he says. “We all started picking up different things that work for our respective stations.”
Before the pandemic, fire chiefs gathered for a monthly Monterey County Fire Chiefs Association meeting, says Monterey’s chief, Gaudenz Panholzer.
With the uncharted territory that has come with the Covid-19 pandemic, each department has had to make their best guesses on how to navigate and keep employees and the public safe. For a period of time, the monthly meetings became weekly Zoom meetings; as the curve of the virus has been flattened, they’ve scaled back to biweekly.
“Yes, there is more collaboration, but I wouldn’t say it’s because there wasn’t good collaboration before,” Panholzer says. “Now we are in need of more information so we reach out to the people we know and trust.”